Money and Whiteness: Transitioning with Privileges

Caitlyn Jenner has finally and very publicly come out. Her big debut is not only on the cover of Vanity Fair but pretty much every news outlet there is. Congratulations to her. She looks fabulous. But of course she does, she’s a wealthy celebrity. Like most famous women her age, she’s had a little work done. (Have you seen those cheekbones?) Now, before you jump down my throat and call me transphobic, I want to be very, very clear: my critique today is about celebrity and wealth, not about transgender people.  Also, this is probably the beginning of a much longer essay in which I make zero friends.

My trans friends have about as much in common with Caitlyn Jenner as most women of color in the United States have in common with Beyoncé. Seriously, have you seen her wardrobe? (Intentional vague pronoun is intentional.) Some of them would pay real money to dress as well as Queen B. And that’s the point. They can’t afford to. Also, they aren’t famous enough to be known by a single letter of the alphabet.

I think it’s awesome that Jenner has (unintentionally perhaps) become the celebrity face of transgender women, and although there have been and still are famous transgender people who’ve come out while under the media’s watchful eye (remember Chas Bono anyone?) Jenner has somehow been different. I believe there are two reasons for this. First, Jenner was a hugely famous and popular athlete in her younger days, making her more of a household name in mainstream circles. Second, Jenner’s family ties have placed her into a category of celebrities famous for being ridiculous—people whose most well known photos are of their naked ass cheeks.

I was watching an interview with an advocacy group recently called Against Equality whose basic goal is in making “queer challenges to the politics of inclusion.” They’re basically a collection of LGBTQA folks who want to complicate mainstream equality rhetoric. They’re so far to the left, they look like they’ve circled back around to the right. One of the points the spokesperson made in the interview was that mainstream equality politics often privileges white, middle-to-upper class LGBT people, while further erasing the poor and people of color. This gets to my central point about Caitlyn Jenner as the face of trans women: she’s wealthy and white. Good for her. 

This is hardly a new critique. It’s the same charge the Lavender Menace leveled against mainstream feminism in the 1970s. Creating mainstreamed versions of marginalized identities is what leads to essentialized stereotypes. Instead of a multiplicity of voices and identities, we’re left with a single placeholder for what a diverse group of people looks like. Feminists in the 1970s didn’t include lesbians and women of color. This isn’t about Jenner; it’s about the problems that come from mainstreaming marginalized identities.

Visibility and representation in media is critical. It is important that Jenner and others like her are seen. I haven’t forgotten how important it was to Martin Luther King Jr. for Nichelle Nichols to play Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. We need to see difference represented. But Caitlyn Jenner isn’t representative of most trans people I know. Most trans people face daily and ongoing discrimination and harassment without the buffer of celebrity and wealth to protect them from the physical threats of violence. And while I don’t mean to minimize the struggle that Jenner faced as she so very publicly transitioned, which was no doubt difficult and invasive, let’s face it: money helped her a lot. Also, Annie Leibovitz makes everyone look fabulous. Remember her pictures of Iggy Pop?

In summation, congratulations to Caityln Jenner for her coming out, but let’s not forget that the experiences of most trans people are not as triumphant as hers.